Wednesday, October 24, 2012

All the Sneaky Ones Part 7: Embassytown

“I’ve got this book I want you to read,” a friend said to me during a femography meet. “I think you’d be really into it. It’s about language, and… stuff. It’s science fiction. But it’s really interesting.”
So after the meet, we went to her house and got the book. We ended up hanging out most of the afternoon. I was thrilled, because I’d known her for ages and wanted to be good friends with her but never made that leap.
Giving someone a book because it made you think of them, out of the blue, is a pretty special friendship indicator, I think. I felt honoured. So I put the book on my bedside table and after reading three pages from it that night I didn’t touch it for months.
To be fair, occasionally I would read a paragraph from it, before I put it down again. There were always at least three books piled on top of poor Embassytown. The book starts in the middle of a party the reader has no context for, in a world that is not explained, and characters that simply appear without introduction. I desperately wanted to read the book, and find out what it was that made my friend think of me. And, you know, I wanted to enjoy the book as well. But it was tough-going.
Finally, when I was moving to Arnhem Land with only 15 kilos of baggage allowance, I had the impetus to actually read the book. I took it as the only fiction book, so I would be forced to read it. Even so, it took me two and a half months to finish it.
Until around page 50, where there was a massive revelation, I still didn’t understand the story. After that the revelations came in waves as the story picked up pace and the stakes were raised, incrementally but significantly.
I can understand why my friend didn’t tell me too much about the novel. I also don’t want to give much away because it was so hard to earn the revelations and yet so worth it when I did, so I don’t want to take the potential pleasure from you.
This makes it hard to review the book. So I’m going to give you a SPOILER WARNING.
Embassytown, the place that provides the title, is a colony town on the outskirts of a wide-ranging country, comparable to Great Britain, except on a galaxy sort of scale. The story revolves around human (or as they call them, “terre”) relations with the indigenous creatures of the land Embassytown is based in, who are called Hosts, or Ariekei. (As I’m living in Arnhem Land and interacting with Indigenous people encountering colonialism on a daily basis, this was pretty interesting to me.)
Individual Terre can’t communicate with the Hosts because they speak with two voices and they only say what is truth.
Their language is organised noise, like all of ours are, but for them each word is a funnel. Where to us each word means something, to the Hosts, each is an opening. A door, through which the thought of that referent, the thought itself that reached for that word, can be seen. (62)
If I [record] a word in Language, and play it to an Ariekes, I understand it, but to them it means nothing, because it’s only sound, and that’s not where the meaning lives. It needs a mind behind it. (62-63)
Through this interesting premise, Melville is able to explore the idea of truth and fiction. Arieke, the indigenous people, are not able to lie, because to lie would be akin to believing something that you didn’t think was true. It’s a paradox. They can use simile but not metaphor. They say “I am like the girl who ate what was given to her” but not “I am the girl who ate what was given to her”.
Something that comes across is that sometimes you have to “lie”, that is say something that is not factually correct, in order to tell a deeper truth. Whenever we talk about big concepts, we stray from straight fact and reach for metaphor. For an example of this, I use an excerpt from the recently reviewed Julie and Julia:
I believe that calves’ liver is the single sexiest food that there is… The reason people despise liver is that to eat it you must submit to it – just like you must submit to a really stratospheric fuck. Remember when you were nineteen and you went at it like it was a sporting event? Well, liver is the opposite of that. With liver you’ve got to will yourself to slow down. You’ve got to give yourself over to everything that’s a little repulsive, a little scary, a little too much about it. When you buy it from the butcher, when you cook it in a pan, when you eat it, slowly, you ever can get away from the feral fleshiness of it. Liver forces you to access taste buds you didn’t know you had, and it’s hard to open yourself to it.
I think this speaks for itself. (Someone will probably argue this is a simile but I think it blurs the line).
The truth in lies idea also reminded me of a line from this video, by John Green: “Nostalgia is inevitably a yearning for a past that never existed, and when I'm writing, there are no bees to sting me out of my sentimentality. For me at least, fiction is the only way I can even begin to twist my lying memories into something true.”
John Green says it better than I can, but what he’s saying is what fiction is like. Fiction is telling a story that didn’t happen in order to convey truth.
The other most interesting part of the story comes right at the end, so if you’ve coped with the spoilers so far but you don’t want the end of the story ruined, BACK OUT NOW BIG SPOILER COME BACK WHEN YOU’VE READ IT (Highlight to read).
At the end of the book the Arieke have to learn to “lie” in order to save their lives and their world. They have to recognise that terre are sentient beings who can communicate. They have to split the signifier and the signified: “What they spoke now weren’t things or moments anymore but the thoughts of them, pointings-at; meaning no longer a flat facet of essence; signs ripped from what they signed” (365).
This is an incredibly painful process. They are essentially destroying their mind and their worldview and rebuilding it. “No wonder it made them sick. They were like new vampires, retaining memories while they sloughed off lives. They’d never be cured. They went quiet one by one, and not because their crisis ended. They were in a new world. It was the world we live in” (366).
This reminds me of my daily life. People I see every day still remember a time when there were no settlers, when colonialism did not touch them, at least not directly. The process of colonisation is ongoing, and it is sometimes painful. Reading this description of the Hosts’ minds being destroyed and remade instantly made me think of people here trying to adapt to a balanda (white person) way of life. I don’t think it’s impossible to live in both cultures and be considered a success according to both world-views, but it is very difficult. I think the destroying and remaking of the mind is a very powerful… wait for it…


Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

I had heard a little about this book recently. Someone was talking about fertility in the sci-fi/futuristic/dystopia genre and how it was never addressed unless it was the whole purpose of the story. And how it was rarely addressed well. In this discussion The Handmaid’s Tale was mentioned as a good handling of the issue.I was discussing reading books off the list, as well as feminist books (which I’ve been doing over on my other blog), with Sandra and she was surprised that I had not read this book. She went and got it off the shelf and told me I had to read it. To my relief (and pleasure) it was on the list – I do not need to add to the books I’m reading which are not on the list!!

So going in, all I knew was that it had to do with fertility (I couldn’t remember if this was one of the well-rounded ones, or one of the dedicated ones) and that Atwood talked about credit cards before they even existed. Sandra had remembered reading this as a younger woman and being incredulous at the idea of someone handing over their number and their money being all in an account!I didn’t even read the back of the book before I started it, mainly as an oversight.
I was immediately drawn in. Although quite confused about the age of the protagonist and her compatriots until quite some way into the book; that did not deter me.

Atwood manages to explain how the world got to the extreme situation it is in, as well as continuing the storyline and engaging the reader with the characters all without causing me to lose interest. No easy task.

There are a great many snippits of the Bible throughout this book and I feel like the reader would be missing out on something if they were not familiar with the Bible, especially as a number of them are not only taken out of context, but have actually been twisted with additions and subtractions as suits the regime. My knowledge of the Bible, and the overall context of the Bible and God made the reigimes misuse of the Bible particularly heinous to me. But I also know that any government that wishes to control its people will use what it can.

I think one of the things that scared me the most about this book was the similarity with today’s world. I am not someone who thinks that 9/11 was a conspiracy but it was a ‘muslim’ attack that has allowed the government to take away many many freedoms from US citizens and indeed governments around the world have taken advantage of the event.
Our lives have not been as restricted as the lives of those living in The Handmaid’s Tale, but our freedom is something we must continually fight for. And we must fight for the freedom of others: “As long as you said you were some sort of a Christian and you were married, for the first time that is, they were still leaving you pretty much alone. They were concentrating first on the others. They got them more or less under control before they started in on everybody else.” As the quote goes:
“First they came for the communists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew.Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.”-          Martin Niemöller
There is much discussion in feminist and movie circles about the Male Gaze and the panopticon. However Atwood discusses this world where women are entirely reliant on the man in their life and how they therefore watch that man consistently.
“We’re all watching him. It’s one thing we can really do, and it’s not for mothering: if he were to falter, fail or die, what would become of us?”So despite how awful the situation is for the women in this world, especially the handmaids, it is also difficult for the men to have these women depend on him for everything. I believe that part of the feminist movement is not only to create choice for women, but to create choice for men, and for them to be able to share that burden of provision with their partners and others in their world.  Not to be solely responsible for everyone in their household. Later on in the book, we see some of the guilt that responsibility (and lack of wielding it well) puts on the Commander.
Although he continues to be irresponsible, so I’m not sure how guilty he was really feeling.

The Commander argues that the changes that were made to this current world were necessary because “There was nothing for them [the men] any more… the sex was too easy. Anyone could just buy it. There was nothing to work for, nothing to fight for. [An] Inability to feel.”This is like one massive backlash to feminism, the men can’t handle the new world and their different role in it, so they take away ALL of women’s freedoms and tell them it is better for them.
Atwood’s description of the procreating process stood out to me so much that I have quoted it below:

“My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he’s doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for. There wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.”

I am someone who loves to find the exact right word for the situation and so her thought process here resonates with me.

This book is obviously written by, if not a woman, then someone who understands how a woman thinks about sex, love and relationships. I really felt that the author was authentic. One example of this is when the protagonist is wishing her lover from the previous world was with her for the express purpose of
arguing whilst getting ready in the morning. This reminded me of a quote from my mother; she was complaining about having double prints of a bunch of photos cos she could look at us any time and we told her she would need them the next year when we had all left home, then she looked all sad and said “I don’t want photos, I want yelling.”
The idea that knowledge is sin, and that the protagonist equivocates about whether she really wants to know what is going on in the world, or she is better off as is: “Knowing was a temptation. What you don’t know won’t tempt you, Aunt Lydia used to say. Maybe I don’t really want to know what’s going on. Maybe I’d rather not know. Maybe I couldn’t bear to know. The Fall was a fall from innocence to knowledge.”

Everyone should read this book.


Monday, October 8, 2012

Retrospective Read: Gone With the Wind

This book contains a great memory for me. I read it the summer I was in America, in 2007. The only copies the library had were these big hardcover books – the book was split into two parts because the copies were so big – with full-page illustrations scattered throughout.
I tore (not literally) through the first book and then had to wait a few days to get my hands on the next instalment, which as anyone who’s been in that situation would know is agony!
It’s a huge book, but I think I read the whole thing in about a month. It just seemed to go on forever. At the time I googled it a lot and found out that it is considered to be literarily quite poor. I didn’t understand why at the time, but now looking back on it I can see that it’s not great prose, though it is still a classic.
I think I’ve read it through in full once since then, and now it’s just one of those books that I can pick up and read from any page and then put it back away when I’m bored again.
Why did this book envelop me so completely that first time? The world that Margaret Mitchell describes so richly draws you in. At first the depiction of Southern slavery and class distinctions is hard to take, but I tried to read it in terms of its historical context, and then I just got sucked right into their world, their values and beliefs and ways of thinking. It was honestly a little scary.
So the loving nostalgia with which Mitchell describes the “old world” (cotton ranches, ladies and gentlemen, southern manners etc.) is compelling, as is the tenacity with which the characters try to hold onto this culture even as the world as they know it is crashing around their feet and the old ways no longer make sense.
The second element of GWTW that makes it magnetical is the relationship between Scarlett O’Hara, our heroine, and Rhett Butler, the archetypal bad-boy we love to hate. They are both terrible scoundrels, as Rhett is always quick to point out, but the difference between the two is that Scarlett truly wishes she could be the lady her mother taught her to be, but she is just too practical to pull it off. Rhett on the other hand is comfortable with his devilish ways.
Throughout the novel it is clear that Rhett is madly in love with Scarlett, but he “is not a gentleman” and she can’t manipulate someone who doesn’t play by the rules. When she thinks he’s in love with her, she teases him and tries to get a proposal out of him so she can shut him down. He doesn’t play into her game.
When he does eventually propose, she accepts – mostly out of practicality. Even when proposing to her, he doesn’t admit that he loves her, just that he “wants her more than he’s ever wanted any woman”. As he explains at the end of the book, though, he never could admit that he loves her because she treats the people who love her so terribly.
The heart-wrenching thing about the Scarlett and Rhett love story is they never actually get it together. They love each other so much, they are so perfect for each other, but they are constantly “at cross-purposes”.
Bear with me a moment while I bring up a Gossip Girl reference. The Blair and Chuck relationship, the central one in the series, is obviously influenced by Rhett and Scarlett. But Gossip Girl gets boring five minutes after they finally get together, and then after that it’s on again off again, breakup sex, hate sex, screwing around with other people, urgh, KMN.
Even though Rhett and Scarlett get married, and the sexual tension is theoretically resolved, the relationship tension is never resolved because by the time they admit they love each other, Rhett is actually speaking of it in the past tense. He’s run out of love for her, after about fifteen years of chasing.


So are you hating on Scarlett yet? (People who skipped the spoiler section, not so much.) Well, she’s the third reason I love GWTW. Likable characters aren’t always the best to read. Scarlett is so selfish, a phony, with questionable morals and terrible taste in friends and architecture. She is in many ways the opposite of the kind of person I want to be. She spends the whole book selling out to save herself and her family. It’s impossible not to admire her and get caught up in her charm, even though you want to slap her.
Should everyone read Gone With the Wind? Maybe, if only so you can get pop culture references to it. People who are sensitive to overwrought writing will find it a struggle, but the compelling plot will pull you through in the end. It’s well worth the read.

All the Sneaky Reads Part 6: Julie And Julia

Like most people in my (more likely my mother's) demographic, I saw the movie Julie and Julia a couple of years ago when it came out on DVD. I loved it. Unlike most movies, it passed the Bechdel Test -- quite a rare feat.

I used to be a stickler for not watching movies before I read the book. I've mellowed out in my old* age. Plus, having that rule kind of assumes that a) the book is always better than the movie and b) watching the movie first necessarily ruins the book. Neither of those things are consistently true. Especially if I had never heard of the book before the movie came out and had no intention of reading it, I now have no qualms about pre-book-reading movie-adaptation watching.

I picked up the book a few months ago while having a lie-down in Mum's bed (oh em gee I'm so homesick!). I think I must have been feeling particularly sensitive at the time, because the ableism in the first couple of chapters** put me off and I put it down.

But when the op shop lady offered me a free book with my hat and cargo shorts, out of curiosity I gave Julie and Julia another shot.

I bought it on Thursday. I finished it on Sunday afternoon. I don't know how quickly most people read, but that's fast for me, for 307 pages. It was a compelling read. I spent all my free time (which was a lot, because I had a four-day weekend) reading it. I haven't been that obsessive (with a book, anyway) since I demolished The Hunger Games series like a ravenous Muttilation.

Problems with Julie and Julia:
It was a little repetitive. There were about 10 temper tantrums over failed meals that could have been edited out, and probably 15 too many instances of her husband skulking around avoiding kitchen implement missiles. The husband was actually not very well-rounded out of a character, which was strange because he was the main supporting character. This probably speaks to Julie's self-absorption more than it doesn't. Saying this, I feel bad, because I relate to Julie. I guess what I'm saying is, she's pretty self-absorbed, but no more than I am.

Anyway, in these ways the movie was both snappier, in terms of just the right amount of kitchen tantrums, and deeper, in how it explored Eric's character and their relationship, and also the relationship between Julia and her husband Paul. To be fair, on that last point, I skipped most of the chapters about Julia and Paul because they were in italics and I found it hard to read, probs because I'm autistic. The movie slipped seamlessly between Julie's story and Julia's, telling them both chronologically. In the book, Julia's chapters seemed randomly sandwiched between Julie missives.

However, I did really like the book, and I wouldn't go so far as to say the movie was better. They were both good, and I liked them both. There were some elements of depth that didn't come across in the movie. There is some simple signficance to the premise of the story -- making 524 recipes in 365 days and blogging about it --  that was more delved into in the text. 'The Project' as Julie nicknames it, saves her life. Not like she was undergoing major strife when it came into her life, just the mind-numbing pain of quotidian dissatisfaction and mediocrity. Through The Project, Julie got appearances on TV, reports in the paper, and launched a career as a writer so she could quit her soul-sucking secretarial job. But those things didn't have to happen for The Project to save her.

I think she needed to achieve something. She needed someone to look up to and follow, someone who appeared to be higher than her humdrum existence. The Project was a journey for Julie, and as in all journeys, she was able to look back to the beginning and see herself a changed woman. I usually look back and see the year-ago me as a markedly different person, but it would be kind of awesome for that inevitable change to be the result of something intentional, like deliberately internalising the voice of a fictionalised 1960s lady-chef.

The other insight I got from Julie and Julia was Julie's connection between cooking and eating and sex. I didn't understand it enough to explain it, maybe you should just read it yourself. But there were things about submitting to the fullness and totality of a taste in order to truly be consumed by it and enjoy it. And that's all I'll say about that.

I don't think Julie and Julia is a book that everyone should read. But if you find it on your mother's bedside table, or for free at an op shop, I think it's worth picking up and perusing.

*I'm not actually old, I'd like to clarify, I meant this ironically. I'm sick of people in their twenties moaning about being old. That's what your thirties are for, people!

**It was something about how she saw a mentally ill person chuck a fit on the subway and realised she wasn't far off being that person. Her description, along with her premise, was (put on the thick glasses) problematic.